GardenSmart :: EPISODES :: 2006 show17
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Show #17/404

In this show we visit a unique resort in northern New Mexico that features some very special gardens as its centerpiece. When this resort was designed and built they focused first on the outside, the goal was to provide a peaceful and relaxing place. The growing conditions here can be challenging but you would never know that by looking at the vast array of plants in this thriving garden. Low humidity, cool crisp air, plenty of attention to detail, a respect for history and the environment and a high desert location, that's the setting for a tranquil and unusual garden.

El Monte Sagrado was the concept of Tom Worrell. He feels that this is a sanctuary and the plants and gardens make it so. Tom believes that the earth should come first and manmade objects and manmade shelters should come second. That's the natural way, that's the way we have evolved over time. The gardens are the centerpiece of this whole space. People come here to unwind, to relax and he thinks that's because of the natural environment, the trees and flowers. When El Monte opened there were about 200 people, from all walks of life, in the sacred circle. In the sacred circle, a rabbi, a priest, Tibetan lamas and local Native Americans were present. All were blessing the place. The last to go in the blessing were the Native Americans which sang and danced prayers. During this part of the process two little children came out, they grabbed people's hands and spontaneously, all 200 people started dancing in a circle. Tom was holding the hand of the mother of the Native American family, who leaned towards Tom and said, "my grandfather and great grandfather danced in this spot before there was anything here." The nature of the space gave Tom cold chills, he knew they were blessed in finding this spot and hadn't previously know that Native Americans had, for years, used it as a scared space. In honor of this memory and because Tom believes in the finest service the resort today stays meticulously groomed and beautiful in large part because of their chief horticulturist, Angelika Heikhaus. She manicures everything, makes sure everything is as it should be, she's magnificent, she is a great asset.

Angelika tells us that we're standing in the sacred circle. It is the dead center of the resort. Everything was built around it. There were Cottonwoods here to begin with and at one time, was used by Native Americans as ceremonial ground. The intention of the folks at El Monte Sagrado was to create a native landscape that is relaxing and inviting.

Angelika is originally from Germany where she studied horticulture and floral design. When traveling through the U.S, she stopped in Taos and loved the place. It's beautiful, it grabbed her, she stayed. Once here she started utilizing her knowledge and education and expanded it through workshops, etc. Angelika was fortunate to find El Monte and was part of the original landscape design team.

Joe says there is a lot to see here, let's start at the top and work down. They start with some of the big trees. The really big trees are Rio Grande Cottonwood trees, they grow up to 80 feet tall. They are native to the area and basically grow in the riparian zones, which are considered the watershed areas. These are areas where water comes down the mountains and reach the bottom land. For the Rio Grande Cottonwood to be able to survive in the area, the high desert, they need to be able to reach the primary water table. These trees are already 80 to 100 years old which means it is towards the end of their life cycle. In anticipation of this, smaller Cottonwood trees have been planted. Under ideal conditions they will grow somewhere between 4 to 6 feet in height every year. Joe wonders, how do you know these trees are in decline? Angelika says one can tell because they decline from the top down. To address that problem, here they start taking the load off the very top. Joe says that dying back from the top down is not unusual. It's common with the Cottonwood as well as other trees. The term is called compartmentalizing and basically what happens is the tree seals itself off from the dead part and all the energy goes into the remaining parts of the tree. Sometimes you'll actually see new growth come out from the area in decline, it doesn't mean the tree is recovering, it's a natural occurrence and temporary.

We next look at a grove of Aspen trees. There are Aspen trees used throughout the property. It is a native tree to the area. It grows between 8,500 and 10,000 feet elevation in the watershed areas, but it also makes a beautiful tree in lower elevations, in residential areas. It is a community tree, it needs other Aspen trees around to grow and survive. They shades themselves, shade their root system and keep moisture in the ground. In the mountains stands of Aspen trees are beautiful, quite stunning. A stand of Aspen trees is considered 1 tree because all the roots are connected to each other. Aspen trees are the first tree to recover from a fire because it suckers back from the root system. Fires in the southwest have been suppressed for at least 50 years, which means that now if a fire comes through the area the fire burns much hotter than normal. This makes it difficult for Aspen trees to recover because the top soil gets burned, the roots basically start cooking. The Aspen tree is beautiful year round, it has 4 seasons of interest. It's beautiful in the summertime because of the evergreen or dark green foliage. The bark is attractive, a light bark. In the fall the foliage is a yellow orange, almost golden. In the early summer Angelika has noticed that aphids start attacking the tree. They deposit a honeydew type residue. But beneficial insects, like Ladybugs, will take care of the problem. Another way to handle the problem is to spray water and knock the aphids off with a strong blast of water.

Joe notices a Blue Spruce. It loves to stand out, it doesn't want to share the stage. It's a beautiful specimen tree.

Joe next notices what he thinks is a Cedar Tree. Angelika says it looks like a Cedar but is actually a Juniper Tree. It is related to the Cedar. The Juniper is a beautiful tree, a great specimen tree for the area. It's drought resistant and pest resistant, grows in the woodland forest with the Poon Tree, at between 8,500 and 10,000 feet as does the Aspen Tree. The Juniper is a long lived tree, reaches the age of 80 to 200 even 250 years of age. It grows wide in trunk size and is a beautiful tree. As opposed to the Aspen, which is not a long lived tree, this tree is long lived and could take over a stand of Aspens.

Angelika next shows us a beautiful pine, called Austrian Pine. It is naturalized for the area, is a 2 needle pine and is very drought resistant and very effective for the area. Joe likes its form. It fills out from the bottom up, so its a great filler against a wall. He thinks they use it very effectively on this property.

They next discuss a New Mexico Privet. Joe comments that Privet grows throughout the country and in the south is invasive. Here it isn't invasive. It's native to the area, it actually controls itself very well. Temperatures here fluctuate wildly, especially in the winter. It can be 20 below and within 24 hours go to plus 50 degrees. Even under those conditions Privet thrives. Depending on water availability it can grow up to 10 feet tall and between 4 to 6 feet wide. It has a nice shape and makes a great landscape plant. It puts out fruit when it matures (an olive shaped and sized fruit), and it's evergreen.

Joe compliments Angelika on their use of ornamental grasses throughout the property. One is Blue Avena grass, sometimes called Blue Oat grass. It blooms typically between May and June which is a great time here to see something bloom. It has a beautiful color, a steel blue, which adds a nice color to the landscape. They don't typically cut these kinds of grasses back until late spring, up until then they're a tan color and beautiful. When the tips start wisping up, it's particularly beautiful.

They have a variegated Miscanthus grass. It doesn't bloom until August or September but has great foliage. Joe likes ornamental grass in general because they're adaptable throughout the country, pretty much anyone can grow them, there are varieties that are suitable anywhere you live. With variations in height it adds a nice, different element to the garden. When wind comes through the foliage and the seed head is present it provides a lot of interest and a nice sound. It doesn't require any work to cut it back, it's a nice perennial that is low maintenance and a great landscape addition for any yard.

Joe likes the undulation in the grassy area. It was initially flat in this area. That was an important factor in landscaping this area. They added mounds and rocks which is not only visually pleasing but additionally effective with the turf. This center area is where they need most of the water. This is where the Cottonwood roots are located, as is the grass. The mounding and rocks direct the water to this area.

Another concept they've exploited is the concept of a living room area and then, extended living room areas inside the courtyards. Guests have access to the smaller courtyards which open up to the larger courtyard making it very enjoyable to be outdoors any time of year.

Joe likes the fact that every time one turns a corner there is a new view, there is something that reveals itself, it feels like there are secret rooms. We look at one such room, an enclosed courtyard that has a Mediterranean feel. Joe asks what makes a Mediterranean garden? Angelika says to her it would be a hot and dry garden. Typically a Mediterranean garden will have herbaceous plants which are somewhat fragrant. In this case they have surrounding adobe walls which provide a lot of heat. Accordingly they have chosen plants that thrive under these conditions. One is a Lavender plant, around June they start blooming and they go all the way through July, even early August. If cut back they typically will get another bloom. They do well here. Another plant that does well is Santolina, which is in the Astor family. It's a beautiful plant and is considered a sub shrub. It's rather low growing, more of a ground cover, it is grayish green with a beautiful yellow, very scented flower. Another low growing plant is Catmint. It is a beautiful plant, in the mint family, has a blue flower and cascades over rocks when placed in the correct area. It does well in dry conditions and withstands heat. Broom is a shrub, and a little taller and more woody. It's an evergreen shrub, in the pea family and makes little, yellow pea shaped flowers. It too likes the conditions here.

In the southwest water can no longer be considered an unlimited resource. Thus they must find new ways to conserve water. The typical American household uses half of its water consumption during the growing season, just on its interior landscape. Angelika feels that needs to change. One way to do that is with xeriscape, Xeric. It is a water wise way of landscaping. It's nothing new, just incorporating native plants that are already adapted to the landscape. A problem generally occurs when people bring plants into an area, plants that aren't adapted to the area, they aren't used to the particular climate. The plants then don't do as well. They may require more water or may demand warmer or cooler temperatures. When this occurs the plants suffer and will require more maintenance to keep them looking good. With Xeriscaping the focus is on native plants, this makes great gardening sense.

Angelika also has some great looking perennials. The first is Yarrow, a beautiful plant that does well in this landscape. It is available in a variety of colors-pink, peach, red, yellow and white, all the pastel type colors. It is drought tolerant and loves the heat. Joe likes the foliage, it's feathery and fine and in this case does an excellent job of softening the wall. Gaillardia, common name Blanket Flower or Mexican Hat, is a great compliment to the Yarro. It is a low maintenance plant, drought tolerant, heat resistant and likes well drained soil. It thrives on neglect. Penstemon is a great looking plant. This is a Rocky Mountain Penstemon and is the largest genus of native blooming flowering plants in North America. It attracts bees and hummingbirds, all kinds of pollinators and too is a great looking plant. Veronica has a similar growth habit, kind of spiky and is often confused with Salvia. It is available in different shades of blue and white. It is in the mint family and does well in this area, it's heat resistant and drought tolerant and pest and disease resistant. One can't ask for much more from a perennial. Jupiters Beard or Red Valerian is part of the Valerian family. It too is a drought tolerant plant, has great foliage and a great color flower. It can be propagated easily through root cuttings and it spreads rapidly. Joe looks at one nice sized example that might have started in a small container but is now in the ground. It has spread out nicely. Angelika says that it is about 2 years old. It could now be divided by putting a spade in the ground, taking some out and leaving the rest. By doing this one could easily have new plants. There aren't a lot of color choices but the coral color is spectacular. Delphinium is a favorite. It's used around the resort and Joe sees it around old plantations and farmhouses. It's a perennial that lives a long time and thrives on neglect. Delphinium comes in many different colors, from soft pastels to bright vivid colors. Delphiniums have only 1 flower spike per year, so what you see is what you get. If you cut that, that's it for the color display that year. Holly Hock is a type of Malva, which is in the Hibiscus family or the Rose family. It is used commonly in this area. If you see a post card with an old adobe you'll likely see a Holly Hock in front. It comes in all colors from whites, yellows, pinks and purple down to blue, one is almost black. It is beautiful and is a biennial which means the first year when grown from seed, you only see the vegetative growth. It will be just a rosette of leaves on the ground. The second year, you'll see the spikes shooting up from the ground. Once it starts going to seed you can collect the seed and use those seeds elsewhere. That's how it comes back on its own. This is the 2nd year growth. It will die back, the seeds will come out of those flowers, they will reseed and in 2 years the same happens again.

From the top down this garden has it all including one of the most important additions to any great landscape, the element of water. The sound, is relaxing and soothing. They have also incorporated stone, the hardscape element, which makes a nice contrast. The rocks really work well. As well they have introduced fish and birds are frequent visitors. It's a little bird sanctuary. The waterways have tied the resort together.

Joe thanks Angelika for showing us this beautiful property and garden. This is a wonderful resort, unique, peaceful and truly a wonderful experience. We hope many in our audience will have the opportunity to visit Taos and El Monte Sagrado.

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GardenSMART Featured Article

By Dan Heims, president, Terra Nova Nurseries, Inc.
Photographs courtesy of Terra Nova Nurseries, Inc.

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